What a furore over one tiny apostrophe – the Daily Mail ranted, Twitter stormed and grammarians fumed – but I think Waterstones was right to drop its apostrophe. Which side of the grammar debate are you on?
Last month, Nikki Whiteman caused a stir here on Which? Conversation by arguing that ‘companies should make ‘less’ grammar mistakes‘.
This was down to a Virgin Active advert that boasted its gyms have ‘more weights’ for ‘less pounds’.
A healthy debate ensued, with some – like Vicky – wholeheartedly on Nikki’s side:
‘The less/fewer mistake is a pet hate of mine! I also saw the Virgin advert you mention, and yes I ranted about it to whoever would listen.’
But others, including Rob Waller, argued that language needs to evolve:
‘Ultimately grammar is about common usage, and changes over time. In effect, if the whole population starts to say ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’, they have voted for it and it is correct. If you go back far enough, ‘an orange’ was ‘a norange’, and there was no such thing as a ‘pea’ just ‘pease’.’
The case of the missing apostrophe
Earlier in the month, Waterstone’s announced that it would be changing its name to Waterstones, as the apostrophe is no longer ‘practical’ in the age of the internet and email.
Grammar enthusiasts were immediately up in arms. ‘It’s just plain wrong,’ said the chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society (which really does exist):
‘It’s grammatically incorrect. If Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s can get it right, then why can’t Waterstones? You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English.’
Meanwhile, outraged customers on Twitter used the hashtag #isnothingsacred. The Daily Mail ranted, as only the Daily Mail can, that ‘the barbarians are at the gates’. And John Humphrys and Michael Rosen discussed the implications on Radio 4. Still, all publicity is good publicity.
Let’s move with the times
I’m a sub editor by profession so I question these issues every day, but I’m with Rob Waller on this one – Waterstones is right to move with the times.
If more people are searching online for Waterstones than Waterstone’s, and the company wants to capitalise on that, why shouldn’t it change its name? It’s in the business of making money after all, and there are few enough bookshops left on the high street as it is.
It’s true that the digital age is having an impact on the way we write and speak, and in time it may affect grammar and punctuation. But languages change no matter how much we wring our hands and stamp our feet – and I suspect we’ll all be quite old before we find out whether Waterstones’ decision really was the beginning of grammatical anarchy.